If you make an inverted pyramid of all the writing that happens around each new Robert Pollard album, the most important information at the peak basically consists of answers to the question “what’s the best song on the album,” and everything else (critical analysis, comparisons to Bee Thousand, the word “prolific”) fills out the rest of the triangle in random fashion. If you extrapolate that over his entire recording career, it’s basically the same thing, but on the kind of scale that makes the cenotaphs at Giza look like exercises in restraint.
Although the guy pretty much functions as a day spa for jaded rock music fans — listen to any one of his top-drawer songs on a day you feel exhausted by stuff like “guitars” or “melodies” and you will be Revived — part of completing the maturation process is coming to the point where you can comfortably leave hacking at yourself to the masochists, and taking your hands off the Robert Pollard merry-go-round until the periodically reoccurring point that it reaches and pulls you back in. If you’ve been converted, it can be difficult to stop paying attention, since pleasure is absolutely the central thing to what Pollard does. It can be hypnotic and desensitizing, like staying in a failing relationship for the sex or keeping Berlusconi in power. There’s a kick that masks how hard-won that enjoyment is, how much is sacrificed; the amount of work he makes you put into digging out the gems out of his cavernous career is 90% wasted. Part of the reason why he has such a devoted cult is probably the fact it takes about as much work to listen to and understand his discography as it does to make it. So, when it comes to a new Bob album, we should be reptiles seeking out blood; all else is irrelevant apart from the sweet spots, and his failures (and there are always several) really should be as inconsequential to us as they obviously are to him. Unless you’re in the cult, the overall quality of each record is irrelevant since all you’re looking for are the gems, and if you’re in the cult, it’s taken for granted that the gems exist, in which case the joy is in the journey to them.
The more you ponder on the subject, the sheer quantity of Bob can really prompt one to existential questioning of one’s own taste, one’s possibility of even slightly autonomous and free musical critical perception. Is the only thing that makes Bee Thousand different or better than, I dunno, Let it Beard the fact it came first? That it’s been canonized virtually ever since discovery? If he’s still writing songs, does that mean they are better now? Have I reached a Pollard limit beyond which it’s impossible to even-sort-of-objectively assess the quality of his new songs without instantly thinking back to the first time I heard “Hardcore UFOs”? It’s oft repeated that his whole career basically begs for a pair of Christgau’s scissors, but even that leads to embarrassments of riches difficult to appreciate, let alone comprehend. Like how it becomes more, not less, impossible to fully comprehend a million war dead the longer you linger on the question, you’ll never get your head around Bob’s honor roll, so it’s healthiest to get out while the going is good and skim the cream whenever you do feel compelled to drop in, lest you get thinking too much.
So, in terms of distinguishing Honky Tonk from the family tree, it’s been touted as a Robert Pollard version of a country album. That boils down to the mention of the phrase “honky tonk,” the cowboy hat on the front cover, and two songs carrying a (very pleasing) kind of loping train-clacking lilt that’s pretty heretofore unexplored in his discography. It’s utterly consistent, simply arranged, and scrolls through the bad ideas fast enough to make them forgivable. As such, it definitely rides up the top half of Pollard’s solo career league tables, but if you needed convincing of the possibility of that fact, you’d never hear it in the first place. The clunkers only commit the sins of boredom or ambition, so what’s the point in calling them out; in the land of Bob, they’re all god’s children and blameless from birth. Yet, even if Pollard thinks every sperm is sacred, I don’t have to hang out with all of them, much less carpool with them. So, here’s what you scoop out of Honey Locust Honky Tonk, and good luck with the other seven albums he’ll release this year:
- “He Requested Things” (one of those quote-unquote “openers” — he always seems to have a dozen of them lying around, except this time the sledgehammers hit you on the side of the head, not the forehead)
- “She Hides in Black” (omg he rewrote “John, I’m Only Dancing” and it’s ridiculously fun for some reason. I thought he didn’t like Bowie, but this is maybe my favorite Bob song of the decade; listen to it right now; steal it, this is what he can do to people)
- “Drawing A Picture” (just plain lovely)
- “I Have to Drink” (if only because it’s surprising he hasn’t written it yet; if “Don’t Stop Now” is the ballad of GBV, then this is basically the drinking song — “A Salty Salute” without any pretext at all, and that’s saying something)
- “I Killed A Man Who Looks Just Like You” (refreshing proof he can be dramatic and creepy without being Circus Devils creepy, which is really just pantomime Meatloaf sometimes)